Monday, January 7, 2013

Youth Sports and Trophy Kids

The very instant each one of our children is born, Steve rushes over to them, and through teary eyes counts fingers and toes, his instincts as protector and provider kicking in hard. Then, we lock eyes and laugh, as I wait for him to tease me about passing on my distinctly bent toes to our sons.  Yep, some of them do have bent toes, and crooked ears, but I'm not sure which ancestor to thank for those precious ears!

And, that's the story for so many of us.  From conception and throughout life we want what is best for our children - for them to be healthy, happy and whole. To be shielded from suffering, difficulty, short-comings and failures, bent toes and crooked ears.  

Sometimes we even want more for them than to just be their best self. We want them to be the best. Period.

Internally we're measuring ours against "theirs", we may not say it, but we are.  We are a comparative society, it's etched in our beings. First, we ask ourselves if our babies are rolling over, crawling and walking according to schedule. Then pretty soon, it's can they sing the alphabet? Because the neighbor kids can. And, finally, are they top of the class, top of the team and on top of the world? Because, it sure seems like all the other kids are.

And if our kids are.....then we are too.

My oldest son, Benedict, would never admit to this (because he's getting to be a "big guy"), but he knows I'm absolutely crazy about him.  I know he's not totally annoyed by me since he still hugs me, and thanks me for making supper every night and opens the car door for me when we go places. Every day, I get to savor his goodness, feel the warmth of his innocent smile, listen to his humble insights on life and watch him grow into his true self with each passing day. God has given him countless undeniable gifts.
At the ripe old age of 10, he wants to be a hoop star.  Master and commander of the court.  But, he's not.  And, he knows it.  Steve and I decided early on to take an encouraging, yet laid-back approach to sports (our number one rule is to JUST HAVE FUN).  Since, both of us love sports, it's a lot of fun to watch our boys' own enthusiasm for athletics grow. Yet, sometimes it's difficult to watch the kids put pressure on themselves because they want to be as good or better than everyone else.  
It doesn't matter if he's good at about a thousand other things, it's basketball that he wants to be good great at.  I try to take his enthusiasm seriously but my ancient wisdom knows he has so much time, room and potential to grow.  All I can remember about my first years of basketball was dribbling the ball off of my big bent toe and shooting at the wrong basket - and he's already better than that, so what's there to sweat about??
Children's abilities change as they grow.  And, although after experiencing a season of personal disappointments, we tried to reassure Ben that he has a lot of time to grow in the sport, and that he shouldn't give up.  But, we could tell he was questioning our advice.  So, we broke out the reinforcements - Dairy Queen and story time. Steve shared with him the story of when Michael Jordan tried out for his high school basketball team and didn't make it. Yet, in spite of that singular disappointment, he went on to become an NBA Legend.  

Then, I chimed in with the a little factoid of my own - Mariah Carey was voted off of the Gong Show, but still became a singing legend.  I gained ZERO respect with that little reflection, and my son stared at me with a look that expressed utter confusion, and "Are you serious, Mom?," and "Just let dad tell the stories" all contorted into one.  Thank goodness I had a large oreo mint blizzard there to ease the rejection. But, I shook it off and made a secret plan to brush up on my college and NBA athlete stats and facts between now and next season. I might even watch a game or two.  Might.

Have you known the experience of practicing something over and over and over with your child - musical instruments or spelling words or sports and then, when it's time for your little star to shine, they bonk?  Totally bonk?  And, in that moment, when the child runs left when he's supposed to go right, sings a solo during the rests and scores below average on those "all important" state assessment tests, the heat of pride rises to the cheeks, beads of sweat break out and all you can do is try to keep it together - for your child's sake and for your own.  I mean heaven forbid that our children should miss the mark, or worse yet, make us look like we missed the mark in teaching them how to sink a 3 at the buzzer or sing the National Anthem like Celine Dion, or memorize their states and capitals in alphabetical order, inside out and backwards.
It's NOT easy to separate our kids' success from our own desire to feel successful as teachers and parents.  I know this, because I FEEL IT TOO! Their performance, good behavior and personal achievements reflect back on us, and when they're good, we feel good.  But when their behavior is bad, or their scores are low we feel embarrassed? Disappointed? Frustrated? Determined to fix it all up into something neat and shiny - like a trophy - a trophy child???

This is where the deep down gutsy love of parenting comes in.  A love that desires what is best for the other.  A love that desires for our kids to shine, but is not self-seeking or self-absorbed, or self-fulfilling. This kind of love is NOT the sunshine, rainbows and unicorns kind of fluff. (I'm thinking of those moms who sob all over their daughters when they get voted off of American Idol, reassuring them that they are the best singer in the universe.  Then they turn around and yell explicatives at the judges.  Puke.).  Nor, is it the "tough-love" that is so tough all it can do is focus on making the kid work harder and practice longer, thinking that one day they will "thank you for it."
Real love wants what is best for another. Real love for Benedict and his current journey in athletics does not involve my own personal passion for success, it involves my passion for the soul of the child.  A soul that needs to be nurtured with encouragement, not pressured with unrealistic expectations, delighted in, not disappointed with, free to be himself, not forced to be a superstar.

It is a lonely feeling for our children, for any of us for that matter, to go through life believing the lie that our only value and worth is in what we do, and how well we do it, and not in who we are as dignified persons made in the image and likeness of Christ.


Sadly, I can't help but observe this tragedy all around me, as parents berate their little children at athletic events and academic competitions as if the five-year old carries the weight of the world and all the happiness of its inhabitants on their shoulders.  


How can we teach our children to enjoy the freedom that comes from experiencing a hobby, interest or sport without that enjoyment hinging upon being the best, better than the rest??  Where's the life or liberty in that?
My hope for Benedict is that he will continue pursuing his passion for basketball.  And, one day as an adult, look back and decide two three things:

1.  He still loves the game, whether playing it or watching it.
2.  The experience of practicing and playing the game was worth every sacrifice, because he's a man of character, hard working, dedicated and free - free to play the game because it's fun, not because he's the best or the worst.
3.  Bent toes are cool.


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